Before I know it, I have slipped back into the black laughter — Black Laughter — where there are thousands of levels of meaning.
  • Before I know it, I have slipped back into the black laughter — Black Laughter — where there are thousands of levels of meaning.
  • Image by Craig Carlson
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

I never wanted to be white... I tried to be a black cat with neat hair. I thought that was the problem — the hair. I'd say, "If my hair was straight, they whitey'd dig me." So I got a process...wrong!...You be Puerto Rican with a process. — Richard Pryor, Craps

"Excuse me, brother," I ask, leaning over the driver's seat and talking to him out the passenger window. "But I'm from out of town. Where can I get a good haircut?"

 I pull my black cap off.

"Excuse me, brother," I ask, leaning over the driver's seat and talking to him out the passenger window. "But I'm from out of town. Where can I get a good haircut?"

 I pull my black cap off.

Cruising down Broadway in San Diego. It's Monday morning, the day after Christmas, and the streets are nearly empty. The sun is so hot that I roll down the window, and the cool breath of the morning breeze blows into the car.

Bob Coleman, Mt. Sinai Barbershop;  "That's my brother there. He was a minister, and after he died, his customers   keep coming."

Bob Coleman, Mt. Sinai Barbershop; "That's my brother there. He was a minister, and after he died, his customers keep coming."

A rap beat suddenly cracks the air. As I pull up to the red light, a sleek black Acura with dark, one-way windows eases up beside me, and the rap music gets louder.

As the driver comes into view, I see he has his window down. I look over at this brother. He is in his late 20s. Gold glistens off his wrist and pinkie finger. But it is his hairstyle that catches my attention: it is faded around the ears — cut very close, that is — and rises to an inch above his head, where it is topped off with glossy curls. Dark brown, leaning forward, he is driving pimp style.

The black barbershop played an educational role for blacks during the segregated era of the '40s and '50s in San Diego.

The black barbershop played an educational role for blacks during the segregated era of the '40s and '50s in San Diego.

"Excuse me, brother," I ask, leaning over the driver's seat and talking to him out the passenger window. "But I'm from out of town. Where can I get a good haircut?"

I pull my black cap off. He checks out my woolly, uncut hair. It isn't just woolly, it's nappy too, and thick and wiry and stubborn.

Chapman and other barbers and black civic leaders sponsored a Little League baseball team. Chapman went to hospitals and gave free haircuts to the sick.

Chapman and other barbers and black civic leaders sponsored a Little League baseball team. Chapman went to hospitals and gave free haircuts to the sick.

"Mr. Afro-Centric on University." He glances up at the light, which had just turned green. "On the corner of University and — " He jerks his car forward and the wind carries the name down the street.

Not again. What street was that? Getting a good black haircut in any city is difficult enough, but especially in San Diego.

Table 1. Slaves with nappy, "bad" hair were the field-workers, according to Dr. Willie L. Morrow, San Diego inventor of the hair process called California Curl.

Table 1. Slaves with nappy, "bad" hair were the field-workers, according to Dr. Willie L. Morrow, San Diego inventor of the hair process called California Curl.

This is one thing the Yellow Pages does not list. Don't believe me? Try it. By looking under "Barbershops," you may find "Ebony Barbers" and discover — as a young black female friend did — that Ebony Barbers is run by Koreans who sell African-American beauty products.

Mr. Gentry and sons. Gentry was reciting "Shine," one of the most famous of the African-American toasts. The "Shine" toast is the story of a black man named Shine who swims ashore when the Titanic sinks.

Mr. Gentry and sons. Gentry was reciting "Shine," one of the most famous of the African-American toasts. The "Shine" toast is the story of a black man named Shine who swims ashore when the Titanic sinks.

So, how do you find a good black barbershop?

Practically the only way to find a good black barbershop is word of mouth — the old grapevine. I decide I will pick out somebody with a good black haircut and ask him.

J.D. at James' Barbers and Stylists. "A lot of people don't like the blues, because they don't know what's up, but more people commit suicide listening to country and western music."

J.D. at James' Barbers and Stylists. "A lot of people don't like the blues, because they don't know what's up, but more people commit suicide listening to country and western music."

If my hair weren't nappy, I would not need a black barbershop. Black people tend to have nappy hair. I am black, have nappy hair, and therefore need a good black haircut.

Many methods have been developed to repress nappy hair, including straightening the hair with harsh chemicals, such as lye, or pressing it with a hot iron. But the most effective is to comb it out and clip it with scissors. But not every barbershop can do this right.

As a child growing up in the South, I used to hear stories about why black people had such nappy hair. "At the beginning of time," I can hear my uncle say, "the Lord was giving out hair.... " And he would tell a folktale like the following tale collected by folklorist Daryl C. Dance in her book, Shuckin' and Jivin.'

...the Lord, you know, decided that He was going to give out hair. And so first He called up a white man and asked him what kind of hair he wanted; he said he wanted straight hair.

Charles Southern. 
Both of Mr. Southern's barbershops — Off Base I and Off Base II — are located on Main Street in Logan Heights.

Charles Southern. 
Both of Mr. Southern's barbershops — Off Base I and Off Base II — are located on Main Street in Logan Heights.

And then he called up a Jew, and said, "Now, Mr. Jew, come on, what kind of hair you want?" He said he wanted curly hair. So the Lord gave him curly hair.

And in the meantime, the niggers were back there playing dice. And they weren't about to stop. And the Lord said, "Niggers, what kind o'hair yawl want? Come up here and tell me."

Table 2. The Afro arrived in the 60s and changed everything.

Table 2. The Afro arrived in the 60s and changed everything.

And they hollered out, "Aw, J.C., just ball it up and throw it back here." And that's the way we got our nappy hair.

"Many black women are getting their hair straightened, but nobody is ashamed anymore about straightening their hair."

"Many black women are getting their hair straightened, but nobody is ashamed anymore about straightening their hair."

As children, we laughed at this folktale, yet we never thought that our hair was "balled up" and "thrown" to us. We thought it was hilarious, however, that anybody would even think we thought that. As an adult, living in California and working toward my Ph.D. in anthropology, I became interested all over again in these stories I'd heard as a boy and ended up writing my dissertation (That Bad Man, Stagolee) on African-American folktales. Now, in San Diego, needing a haircut, I was curious as to whether these traditional oral narratives about the black hero Stagolee were still being told, as they were in my childhood, in barbershops.

After digging into the city map, I drive to University Avenue, hoping to find the Afro-Centric Barbershop. Already, I could hear the lies and the laughter.

The I spy it. Unbelievable! I have found my first real stomp-down black barbershop.

But when I walk through the door, I discover a Spanish-looking gentleman holding a broom and gesturing me to sit down in a black leather chair. "I cut hair," he says.

"No, I'm looking for a black haircut." I ask if he knows anything about Mr. Afro-Centric Barbershop."

"Called Mister Afro — what, please?"

I finally escape, but not before he tells me about a black barbershop he knows. Maybe this is it, I'm thinking. I walk a few more blocks, but it turns out to be a white barbershop. A low-rent one at that.

My luck changes when I see a black mailman. I ask him if he's ever heard of the Afro-Centric.

No, never. "But if you're looking for a good black haircut, I might be able to help you."

"Please. Yes."

"Well, now, let me see. There's an excellent one on Euclid Avenue," he says, and taking off his cap, smiles at my glance at his recent haircut. "Yeah, I — uh — use that shop myself!"

"How do I get there?"

"Make a right down 54th Avenue. You will go past University. Then Market. Turn right into the mall just before the third light. Once you get inside, look fo' doors down from the Beauty Supply place and there is the barbershop. Can't remember the name of it, but the guy who always fix me up is named Ed."

The Religious Barbershop: Mt. Sinai Barbershop: I become initiated

Within half an hour, I am walking into the Mt. Sinai Barbershop. The place is empty. Two barbers, with hungry and bored looks, glance up at me and put on a friendly social mask as I enter. They show interest because I am a potential customer.

"Hello," I say to the younger of the two — the one in front of his chair, in the farthest part of the shop, a big, grinning young black man. "I'm from out of town, and I am looking for a haircut."

He laughs. "You come to the right place." I sit down in the chair and he throws the white cape over my shoulders and pins it in the back. He leans over my shoulder and says, "Now, how do you want it?"

"Take a little off the top and sides." He laughs again and points to a chart on the wall. "Look at the chart and see if you see a style you like. You see, I ain't tryin' to be smart, but a lot of guys come in here and say they want 'a little bit off the top,' and when I cut it, they get pretty mad, 'cause what they mean by 'a little bit' and what I mean by 'a little bit' is different!"

"Okay, why don't you cut off what you consider a little bit and then let me look at it in the mirror."

"All right." He starts to clipping. Under the regular and rhythmic clippings of the clippers, I ask, "Where did you get the name Mt. Sinai Barbershop? Was it owned by Jews?"

Both barbers throw back their heads and howl. "Man, naw,' Ed says. "This barbershop was owned by a preacher." He points to the other barber. "That's his brother right there. That's Bob Coleman. His brother, Mr. Coleman passed on and his brother took over."

I was to discover later that in the black community, barbershops are often passed on in a lineage that has nothing to do with bloodlines. A shop's deceased owner will leave the shop to an employee, as if the shop were a political office being passed on.

Bob Coleman points to a picture of his brother hanging over the bar. "That's my brother there. He was a minister, and after he died, his customers who had known him all his life, why, they keep coming."

"Are they preachers, too?"

"Some of them are, yes."

"They tell a lot of jokes?"

"Oh, yes!"

"A lot of gossip about the other members of the church?"

"Oh, yeah!"

"What's your name?"

"Ed," he says. Ed's family name — his whole name — is Bennette. He came to San Diego from Bessemer, Alabama. There in this steel mill town ten minutes from Birmingham, he worked for U.S. Steel, until he joined the Marines. When he got out of the Marines, he went to barber college.

"You left Birmingham and you started cutting hair here?" I ask, as I listen to the chirping of clippers.

"Yeah, that's right," Ed says, nodding to the man who enters. He is a tall, handsome man in his late 50s, attired in an elegant off-white suit and a wide-brimmed hat.

"One of us will be right with you," Ed says quietly to the new arrival.

I say something about my problem finding a barbershop. The new arrival speaks up. "Well," he says, settling back in his chair, "I'm a businessman, and I often make trips to New Orleans. A black barbershop is hard to find."

His name is Jake Bovie. He does business in crude oil. As we toss subjects around, he says he had written a book, but J. Edgar Hoover blocked its publication. He adds that he had once worked for the FBI.

"Hoover was a prejudiced person," I offer, to bring him out a bit. "He was after Dr. King."

"He was prejudiced against all blacks," Jake says, "not just against Martin Luther King, but all blacks."

Ed, somewhere above my head clipping away, hears his and jumps in with his observation. "I have a friend who swears that Hoover was a great guy," he says. "J. Edgar Hoover was a great guy."

That stops the conversation. Jake looks unhappy. "Hoover was sick!" he says, finally.

"This friend of mine," Ed goes on, "he comes in here all the time, and he claims that Hoover used to write him letters. He swears by Hoover. He says he wrote Hoover about some problem, and Hoover wrote him back. Personally. And had the problem fixed."

Nobody knew what to say. The idea that his friend — presumably a black man like us — liked Hoover, that was a fabulous idea. Even the idea left us immobile.

The bartender's "friend" made me think of the old black wino in a Richard Pryor routine who swore he was "one of the first coloreds, man, in the FBI. That's right, J. Edgar Hoover appointed me personally, girl. Wanted somebody on the railroad to watch the Mexicans. That's right, 'cause wouldn't nobody in the Bureau at that a particular time speak Mexican talk. And they hired me. I could understand Mexican, 'cause I hear 'em talkin' I say, 'What you say, motherfucker?' They tell me!"

To break the silence, I say, "But, you know, he must have known Hoover personally."

"I think so," Ed says, letting the humor settle in. "But he must have polished Hoover's shoes, huh?" He chuckled. The inference that the "friend" of Hoover's might have been his bootblack is an inside joke for blacks who have had to do such menial jobs to make a living. We know this humor deeply, secretly. It reveals the ironic way we — as black men — view life.

"Yes," Jake says, laughing too.

Before I know it, I have slipped back into the black laughter — Black Laughter — where there are thousands of levels of meaning in each giggle, smirk, gut-wrenching bellow. I'm at home in this steady flow of free association and stream of consciousness.

A black woman with three boys comes into the shop, and as they all sit down, Ed puts the mirror in my hand. I look at my new haircut in the mirror.

"It looks great! It really does!" I get up as he brushes the hair from me. I explain that I've got my Ph.D. in anthropology, with a specialty in black folklore, that I'm interested, as an anthropologist, in the black barbershop and what's going on there. I ask, "Where can I find some more black barbershops?"

"I heard about a black barber with only one chair," Ed says. "He's down on Market and Fourth. I can't remember the name of it, but it's right next to a bakery. You can smell the bread baking."

Ed has performed a Southern gesture: instead of the usual street number and name, he has given me the smell — the yeasty make-your-nose-twitch smell of baking bread.

"You can't miss it. Anyway, he's been there for years. It's right there on Market and Fourth. A part of the city that used to be black, but a lot of Mexicans live there now."

I thank him and turn to leave. He points out the San Diego County Black Chamber of Commerce across the plaza and says I could get some information on barbershops from them.

Hair as Cultural History, or the Black Barbershop During the '50s

I park my car on Market and Fourth in the Gaslamp District and start sniffing the air for baking bread. Within seconds, I have picked up the scent. I find the Manila Barbershop next door to the Gaslamp Quarter Hotel. Peeping through the window, I see the barber with only one chair. The traditional barbershop sign of candy stripes of white, blue, and red rises up next to the entrance.

Inside, Mr. Chapman is giving a haircut. The customer, a Mr. Larry Jarman, contributes to our conversation. Although the two gentlemen have known each other for 40 years, they still refer to each other as "Mr. Chapman" and "Mr. Jarman."

Mr. Chapman joined the Navy in 1939 in the East Coast and got out of the Navy in San Diego. He went to the Associated Barber College for a refresher course.

The two men describe how the black barbershop played an educational role for blacks during the segregated era of the '40s and '50s in San Diego. The barbershop was a community center and the barbers, community leaders. Mr. Chapman and other barbers and black civic leaders sponsored a Little League baseball team. Mr. Chapman went to hospitals and gave free haircuts to the sick.

During the '50s, one of the biggest local centers of activity for blacks was the Douglass Hotel, where big bands like Billy Eckstine's and Cab Calloway's appeared. There were many black-and-tan clubs then, with names like the Zebra Club and Cotton Club; they featured the best bartenders, fully orchestrated swing bands, and acrobatic dances like the Lindy Hop.

Like Mr. Chapman, many of the local barbers played a significant part in seeing that patrons of this extraordinary nightlife were well-groomed. Bandleaders like Duke Ellington set the style with conked hair and "finger-curves."

This was also the time when black inventors of skin-lighteners and hair-processing products became millionaires. Many black barbers and hairdressers began amassing incredible wealth during the '30s and '40s by convincing blacks they needed to lighten their skin and straighten their hair. Fortunes were made on the premise, which blacks themselves bought, that black, woolly, nappy, kinky hair was unappealing to the larger white society. What these entrepreneurs offered were methods to turn "bad" hair into "good" hair. Black musicians, entertainers, athletes, preachers, businessmen, society women, even Malcolm "Detroit Red" Little, who would become Malcolm X, all had their hair processed with lye, which straightened out the kink and made it possible for them to create the softer "finger waves."

One of the most successful California black barbers was Roger Simon. In the '40s, Simon developed the finger wave, which left black hair looking like light shimmering on a moonlit lake. Among Simon's clients were Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Earl "Fatha" Hines, and Sugar Ray Robinson, who was unable to find a hairdresser to give him waves that lasted until he found Mr. Simon. Simon met Redd Foxx in Los Angeles in 1974 and opened a shop with him called Redd Foxx Hair Salon. Nat "King" Cole was a client and with Simon wrote a song, "Tell Me All About Yourself," which Cole recorded.

"Talk about pride!" Mr. Jarman says. "Then the word meant something. Pride was something you lived with, not just a word then."

Although San Diego didn't offer many opportunities for blacks, says Jarman, blacks did survive with dignity. There were limits to what blacks could do, but they had significant freedom in their own bars and taverns, churches and community activities, in which the barbershop played a central role.

When you went to the barbershop in those days, you got an education. You learned the history of your people and what it was like for people who came before you. There was no swearing and no off-color stories of Stagolee. For that kind of stuff, you had to go to the hole-in-the-wall places.

"When you saw that barber pole," Mr. Jarman says, pointing out his window, "you knew there was more history and respect."

Mr. Chapman unpins the apron from Mr. Jarman's neck, and Mr. Jarman stands up. He looks at the back of his hair in the mirror. "That's all fine," he says, as Mr. Chapman puts his scissors back on the table.

As I leave them, they seem frozen in time. How many times have they gone through this ritual? I wonder as I leave.

These men were honest and decent people, but they represented the segregation era, when black hair was "bad."

"Good hair — that's the expression," Bell Hooks, noted black feminist, has written in Bearing Witness: Selections from African-American Autobiography in the 20th Century. "We all know it, begin to hear it when we are small children. When we are sitting between the legs of mothers and sisters getting our hair combed. Good hair is hair that is not kinky, hair that does not feel like balls of steel wool, hair that does not take hours to comb, hair that does not need tons of grease to untangle, hair that is long. Real good hair is straight hair, hair like white folks' hair."

Blacks have used their straightened hair to get Whitey to like them. Hair becomes a symbol of how blacks feel about themselves and how they feel about whites. Straight hair is "good" hair, and having Whitey dig me means being accepted into the white world.

If straight hair is "good," then the opposite extreme is nappy or "bad hair." Slaves with nappy, "bad" hair were the field-workers, according to Dr. Willie L. Morrow, San Diego inventor of the hair process called California Curl and prodigious author of books about black hair. Morrow writes that slaves who worked in the Big House as servants — who were close to the white family — straightened their hair with hot irons or kept their hair hidden under a head rag. (See table 1)

If Mr. Chapman's Manila Barbershop represents the black barbershop's past, the family barbershop represents the present. After the segregation era of the '50s, many blacks who were barbers came to San Diego from Southern states. Most came from family values-oriented small towns. Southern folklore is still an important influence in their barbershops. The Gentry Family Barbershop, located not more than half a mile from the Mt. Sinai Barbershop, is an excellent example of this type.

"How did you get started as a barber?" I ask Elijah Gentry, as I sit down in a chair across from his. It is early evening, and as Gentry talks he glances occasionally over at his sons, who are also cutting hair.

"When I was a small boy, a man wanted to have all his hair cut off," Gentry laughs. "He let me do it. That was the beginning."

Like Ed from Mt. Sinai and many other black barbers in San Diego, Mr. Gentry is a Southern boy — transplanted to San Diego. He was born in Oklahoma in a small farming town where they grew cotton, corn, and peanuts. People made just enough to get by. They could never get out of debt to the white landlord. From an early age, Mr. Gentry told himself that when he finished high school, he was going to leave. He joined the Navy and ended up in San Diego in 1957. When he graduated from the Associated Barber College in 1958, he started working in barbershops in the black community.

After 18 years cutting hair in other men's shops, Gentry decided to build his own building. He bought enough land to build an entire block. He applied for a loan and was turned down flat.

Gentry had suffered from racism in the South, but this racism was blatant and obvious. In the South, as long as you stayed on your side of the tracks, everything was all right. But here in San Diego, Gentry saw how subtle racism was. He noticed that as long as blacks worked in low-level jobs, they were accepted; but when the bank teller wanted to become a bank manager, forget it.

"When you start moving up," he tells me, "that's when your problem started. So I wasn't surprised when they didn't make me the loan to put up this building. They told me, 'We can't loan you money now, but if you wanted to buy a motor home, we could help you.' A motor home? I didn't want no motor home. I had trouble getting the money to build, but I decided to go on and do what I wanted to do. I work and I save and started to build."

When the loan company saw that Gentry was going to build without their loan, they changed their mind; they decided that giving him a loan would be a good investment. Gentry credits his persistence — an essential Southern black character trait — for getting him the loan.

"I had called the district manager and told him what was happening. He didn't know if I was white or black. He looked at the paperwork: the paperwork looked good. Then he called the branch manager. The branch manager called me again. He says, ' you, uh...we are now reconsidering your loan. Can you come up here?' 'Yeah, I can come up there.'

"I went up there Monday. 'Are you building now?' he asked. 'Yeah.'

" 'Can I see it?' 'Yeah, you can see it.'

"I brought him down here, where everybody was working. I was going to work on whether he would loan me the money or not. 'Yeah,' he says, 'We see now. Yeah. Okay!' They wanted to let me have the money after they see'd I didn't need them.

"I had called all my relatives, all over the state, from Oklahoma and my in-laws from South Carolina. I was determined. Even after the bank gave me the $50,000 loan, I had to put off $1500 in credit to get the loan. But I wouldn't give up because the struggle I had gone through on the farm back in Oklahoma prepared me for this.

"I talked with a few blacks who were really hurt when they run up against that prejudice; not knowing, thinking that prejudice would not really happen to them. But they ran up into it and it almost killed them.

"Young people go to college, and they are hit with prejudice; it's not easy for them to overcome it. I let my sons know about it. They don't believe everything I tell them, but when they run into it [racial prejudice], they recognize that I was telling them the truth. It's not so much a shock to them if they have been told."

Gentry represents a long tradition in which blacks used barbering skills as a way out of economic hardship. Barbering was the one skill in which white slave owners allowed blacks to excel. After the Civil War many blacks established barber colleges across America. The most notable was Daniel Hale Williams. He was born in 1858 in Holidaysbury, Pennsylvania, according to Dr. Willie Morrow. At the age of 17, Williams owned his own barbershop. He dreamed of becoming a doctor, and through the men who came into his shop, he was able to make connections. When he entered medical school, he used his skills with a razor and became the nation's best surgeon, successfully performing open-heart surgery in 1893.

Hundreds of stories are told in every black community about the black hair-product pioneers: Madame C.J. Walker, Madame Gold, S.M. Young, Sarah Spencer Washington, Bernice Calvin, Mr. Nathaniel Bronner, and Dr. Marjorie Joyner. These men and women were among the first successful black entrepreneurs. Not only did they found moneymaking companies that sold black beauty products, they also became black social leaders. The National Beauty Culturists League, the first union for black women beauticians, was among Dr. Martin Luther King's first supporters.

Although he now owns his own building, Mr. Gentry is not one of these "founding millionaires." But he does uphold the tradition of social leadership established by the original black hair-product pioneers.

"Education is not better [in San Diego] than in the South. They [San Diego schools] may get into more curriculum than they do in the South. But the Southern teachers seem more sincere about teaching. [in San Diego] the teachers' attitude seems to be that if you [the students] are not cutting up in class, you don't have to learn nothin'! You go to school and ask about your kid: 'Oh, your kid is doin' fine.' I say, 'Wait a minute! I'm not talkin' about his actin' up. How is he doin' in his lessons? How's his grades?'

" 'Oh, well [Mr. Gentry imitates a white female whine], uh — '

"I say, 'Well, this is what I'm talkin' about.... How can I help?' I say, 'I want you to teach him. I'll discipline him. You send him to me and I'll make sure that's bein' taken care of.'

" 'Oh, Mister Gentry, I ain't got a problem with him. I say, 'I know you ain't. You ain't gonna have no problem with him. I'm goin' to make sure. I just want to make sure he learns something.' I want my child to learn. Teachers here are not as sincere as the ones in the South."

"Did you tell a lot of folktales in the South?"

"Oh, hahahaha!"

"Like 'John Henry'?"

"Hahahaha! Yeah!"

"And 'Stagolee'?"

"Oh, yes, 'Stagolee.' In fact, I've heard just about every side of 'Stagolee' that you could name!"

"Oh, yeah?" I bristle for the challenge, since I just happen to know about one hundred variants.

Stagolee is a bad man who shoots down Billy Lyon, who cheats him at cards. It is told in rhymed couplets by black men when there are no women or whites around.

Mr. Gentry asks me, "What about that one where he [the hero] was swimming so fast — that he out-swam the whale?"


"Yeah! Shine! 'Shine, Shine, I give you all your eyes can see/If you will save po' me!/Shine says, That it may be so/But there's better on the other sho'!' "

Mr. Gentry was reciting "Shine," one of the most famous of the African-American toasts. (A toast is an oral narrative, usually bawdy, told in rhyme, celebrating the invincibility of a black male hero.) Sometimes known as "The Titanic," the "Shine" toast is the story of a black man named Shine who swims ashore when the Titanic sinks. In all of the toast's versions, Shine is the black man who works on the ship as a stoker.

When the ship is sinking, the captain, the captain's wife, daughter, and grandmother come to the deck and beg Shine to save them. But Shine refuses, saying, "You better get in this water and swim like me!"

These toasts, or narratives, flourished during the '50s in black communities. The barbershop — along with the pool hall and the gambling house and the whorehouse — were places where these narratives circulated.

I ask, "Did you hear that before you came out here?"

"Oh, yeah," Mr. Gentry says. "Oh, yeah."

"Are there still barbershops where they still tell those old jokes?"

"Yeah, they still tell them, but not in this shop. Not so much so. I just didn't like the way barbershops had projected the image. I wanted to change that. I wanted my barbershop to be a business. You could come here, take care of business. I wanted it to be a place where I could do more than just get by."

He wanted a shop where barbers and customers did more than tell jokes. Barbershops used to be places where women wouldn't go in. They would be too embarrassed. He didn't want that. Women would tell him, about his shop, "I don't mind being in your place. I'm not embarrassed."

In 1957, after Mr. Gentry got out of the service and went to barber college, he started working in shops where customers told men's jokes, used foul language, did some drinking. Mr. Gentry enjoyed the humor, but he said, to himself, "Never, not in my barbershop." When Mr. Gentry got his own shop, he set the standard by not cursing himself. He didn't want to run women out and, too, many of his own barbers were women.

Mr. Gentry is proud of his clientele. Many of his customers are professional athletes, lawyers, doctors, and policemen.

The Family Barbershop Revisited, or Black Woman's Barbershop

James' Barbers and Stylists on 3120 Market Street, located not far from Mr. Gentry's shop, represents the contemporary black family barbershop. It is run by a black woman, Evelyn Gentry — Lady E. — Gentry's niece. She too was sent to Pat Frank's Associated Barber College.

Lady E. calls her shop the James Barbershop in memory of her former boss, who willed it to her when he died, even though Evelyn was no blood-kin to him. A portrait of Mr. James hangs in a place of honor, centered high on a wall overlooking the barbershop.

"Don't eat red gravy," J.D., a young barber, tells a customer. J.D. is from Louisiana. "If you eat red gravy, your girlfriend will leave you. If you leave your hair around, somebody might get a strand of it and voodoo you."

A black woman and her young son come in and take a seat. There are two women barbers and J.D., who's a big blues fan and plays in a zydeco band. "A lot of people don't like the blues, because they don't know what's up, but more people commit suicide listening to country and western music." We laugh. He is preparing to go to a B.B. King concert.

The phone rings and J.D. answers it, speaking in a soft tone. Gloria, one of the barbers, laughs raucously when I recite a few stanzas of the Stagolee toast.

"Oh, I've heard that," she says.

"Have you ever heard of the Signifying Monkey?" I ask.

"Oh, yes."



The others laugh. Soon the conversation takes a pause — a nostalgic pause. The big conversation breaks off into small ones between two and three people, a common conversation, a typical black conversational rhythm.

J.D. talks about Michael Jackson. He believes that most people think Michael is innocent. He says that people feel sympathetic to Michael because he had no childhood. He was dancing from the time he could walk.

J.D. points to the television, which is running. "We watch a lot of television here." He points to three televisions located at various places in the large room. Each television is turned to a different channel. A radio is on, purring out a Latin tune. Over all of this J.D. is talking.

"The B.B. King show is $45 each!" He is buzzing with the electric shears and doesn't glance up. "But what I don't like is the shooting....

"I hate all the shooting," J.D. repeats as if it were the first time he had said it. "That's what I don't like. That's why I don't live over here. They just shot somebody that lives close to here." Then the conversation switches back to another subject.

How to Read Black Hair: The Fade, and the Baby Afro

African-American hair is a metaphor for the history of the African-American's journey from Africa to this country, from slavery to emancipation to Reconstruction, to the civil rights movement, to the Afro to the Geri Curl to the Fade.

To discuss hairstyles, I talked with barbers at the two Off Base barbershops owned by Charles Southern. I had read about Mr. Southern in The African-American Awareness News Link. In a front-page article, I learned that Mr. Southern has been a successful businessman for the last five years. The article notes, "Charles believes in giving people a chance to succeed." It goes on, celebrating and praising Mr. Southern as "this community['s] activist and entrepreneur" who "fed more than 2500 people." Such claims were also made by the early barbers, who sought to extend their standing in the black community by becoming leaders who helped the unfortunate and poverty-stricken members of the community.

Both of Mr. Southern's barbershops — Off Base I and Off Base II — are located on Main Street in Logan Heights. One sees shops, car repair garages, warehouses. Like most of the barbershops I visited, Off Base I is in a mall, although a small one.

When I enter the door, a congenial black woman behind a hair supplies-laden desk asks if she can be of help. After I explain that I'd like to talk to the barber about black hairstyles, she says the owner will be back later in the day. But, just as she finishes her sentence, the barber, who has overheard our conversations, walks up and introduces himself.

"How are you?" he asks. "Sit down."

His name is Rufus, and his customer is Robert, an insurance inspector. Rufus grew up in Oakland, California, and first came to San Diego in 1948. On the subject of barbershop folklore and the toasts "Stagolee," "Shine," and others, Robert learned all that stuff back in Oakland.

Robert grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, and remembers sitting on the porch and learning "Shine." But out here he notices that the young people don't know these toasts. He believes, he says, that the reason young people don't talk in the barbershops the way they used to in the South is that these kids are rappers who don't talk in barbershops but put their talk into their music.

A young Asian across the room is cutting hair. A young black female barber is straightening a customer's nappy hair. She is combing a white lye solution through the hair. A security guard comes in and sits down beside me. Two white people, a blonde girl, and a young man come in.

Is it having women barbers in a shop that keeps people from telling the old stories? Like "Shine"? I ask Rufus. No, he says, and pauses, adding that he thinks having a woman barber helps business. A lot of his customers want to get their hair cut by a woman.

Rufus tells me that he learned to cut hair back when the Quo Vadis was the rage. The Quo Vadis was cut as close as possible to the head and shaped with a razor across the front. What is the most requested haircut in Rufus's shop? The Fade. Robert is getting a Fade. Rufus explains the Fade as cutting the hair close and "taking out the line." Are people still straightening their hair?

"Oh, yes," Rufus says, "many black women are getting their hair straightened, but nobody is ashamed anymore about straightening their hair."

The black woman who is getting her hair straightened turns and gives us a hard look.

"Is the Afro coming back?" I ask Rufus and Robert.

"Yes," Rufus says, "it has come back as the Baby Afro. You cut it like an Afro, but you keep it short."

Robert shakes his head. "Naw, the Afro is gone."

"No, it may come back," Rufus says.

"It may come back," Robert says, "but it won't stay."

Toward an Ethnography of the Afro

In an ethnography of black hair, we see that during the 60s and 70s, the Afro becomes a significant symbol. At the time the Afro came in, this hairstyle became a symbol of black independence from established white European styles. The black militants wore Afros. The black conservative maintained his "white" crew cut or flattop style.

But what did the Afro symbolize for blacks — then and now? This involves, quite naturally, the whole question of symbolism and hair. Any discussion of hair symbolism will have to take into account one or two of the most important essays in the field.

In the '50s, the psychoanalyst Dr. Charles Berg, in his 1951 book The Unconscious Significance of Hair, claimed that a connection existed in the subconscious between hair on the head and male genitals. Not long after this, anthropologist Edmund Leach took up Dr. Berg's research and went further. In the celebrated 1958 essay "Magical Hair," in Symbolic Anthropology, Leach created a stir in the discipline when he claimed that haircutting equals castration.

Professor Leach used as one of his examples the story of Samson and Delilah in the Old Testament book of Judges, where Samson's strength resides in his hair and Delilah's cutting of Samson's hair is essentially castration.

But Professor Leach's theory would be attacked. In 1969, C.R. Hallpike published a rebuttal to Leach's "Magical Hair" with "Social Hair." Hallpike says that Leach was right about the connection between hair as a symbol of something, but Hallpike was not sure that the correct equivalence was castration.

"Long hair," Hallpike wrote, "is therefore a symbol of being in some way outside society, of having less to do with it, or of being less amenable to social control than the average citizen. but the means by which one attacks this condition are of course various."

Hallpike gave examples from the Bible as Dr. Leach had done: "Esau, the hunter of the wild beasts, was a hairy man, while his brother Jacob, a herdsman dwelling in tents, was a smooth man.... A leper must shave off his head, before he is reincorporated back into society (Leviticus: 14, 8, 9); the Nazarites were never allowed to cut their hair until the end of their separation (Numbers: 6. 1-18)."

But Hallpike also mentions that "Anchorites, witches, intellectuals, hippies, and women all are long-haired." They all have one thing in common, he claims — they are all "associated with being outside society, for whatever reason." He then clinches his point with this observation: "There is considerable evidence in fact for an association of outside society equals hairiness equals animality." Esau, the man outside society, was hairy and associated with wild beasts by his occupation as the hunter of wild beasts.

Black hair's meaning during slavery is well described by Dr. Willie Morrow. In his book 400 Years without a Comb (1990), Morrow claims that before the arrival in Africa of the white slave traders, Africans had a standard of beauty based on the Afro pick, also known as the Afro comb. When slave traders shipped their slave cargo to America, the traders deliberately left such cultural artifacts as the Afro pick or comb behind. This comb would surface again during the '60s and be used to comb out hair, when then could be clipped and shaped into the Afro style.

"During transportation from Africa to America, the African's hair went unkempt and uncombed," Morrow writes. "This left his hair soiled and caked with filth, often remaining in that condition from ship to plantation and even to grave. Slave owners gave no consideration for the personal hygiene of the slave."

The only way the slave could deal with his hair was to cut it, writes Morrow, with "the large and awkward shears used to groom animals." Most black women wore the field rag, "which was part of the black female's dress." In the Big House, women wore a "head rag." These rags identified these women as a house "nigger." The hair, according to Morrow, was a symbol of "self-humility." "The head rags," he adds, "were unhealthy" and, when worn "tightly around the slave's head, cut off circulation to the scalp, deprived the hair of nourishment, and made it even more dull and undesirable."

Male blacks who worked in the fields had nappy, or "bad hair." Their hair was not allowed to grow long. Runaway slaves were depicted in the popular press as having long, flowing, woolly hair. Morrow believes that slaves learned to despise their hair, because the white master used the slave's hair to humiliate him. Often, the slavers allowed blacks' hair to grow long so that they could pull them along with it.

"The slave, succumbing to the constant ridicule, reacted to the master's intense dislike for his hair and kept it covered. Thus, the head rag became a symbol of slavery, a binding part of the servitude to the master," Morrow writes. Hallpike's belief that long hair is equivalent to being outside society applies here, too. We must assume that by "society," Hallpike means white society and that whites read the meaning of the hair codes in the same way as blacks read them. The head rag was a symbol of domestication. (See table 2)

After slavery and during Reconstruction (1890-1920), blacks used lye and a hot iron to take out the kinks from their hair. This was a period of political accommodation. During this Jim Crow era, blacks were disenfranchised politically and separated socially from whites in every public activity.

The Afro arrived in the 60s and changed everything. Black hair was liberated in America for the first time — and it owes its liberation principally, according to Dr. Morrow, to the rediscovery of the Afro pick. The Afro was worn by Angela Davis, Huey Newton, H. Rap Brown, Jesse Jackson, and other militant black leaders. Eldridge Cleaver's first major essay, "As Crinkly As Yours," printed in Negro History Bulletin in 1962, is one of the first serious studies of white and black hair symbolism. Recently, in conversation with Cleaver, he told me that "As Crinkly As Yours" was inspired by the action, during that time, of his fellow prisoners in Soledad. They refused to have their hair cut and were therefore thrown into solitary confinement.

All over America, the chant "Black Is Beautiful" became associated with a black man or woman wearing the large black Afro. At the conservative all-black Howard University, the first black woman with an Afro was elected college queen.

The Afro symbolized the black man's willingness to see a positive value in being outside white society. It was not so much that blacks didn't want to associate with whites but that blacks found their own "outside-ness" to be a central position politically, culturally, and socially. They had learned the bitter lessons of the handkerchief-headed generations before them, who had become so domesticated that they submitted to the hot iron and chemical lye. Gone today with the Afro is the black man and woman's symbol of pride. Is the hip-hop hairstyle that has replaced the Afro a symbol of black pride and black nationalism?

After the age of the Afro, blacks found themselves making yet another change in hair symbols. With rap music, it became possible to become part of the majority society without being alienated. The dreadlock style (as worn by Alice Walker, Angela Davis, Whoopi Goldberg, Quincy Troupe, and occasionally, Stevie Wonder) is an example of a category that mediates between the long hair (outsider) status and the hair straightened (domesticated). The dreadlocks mix the quality of outside/inside status; they are long (with the black, wild, nigger hair), but their texture is not nappy.

Other hairstyles that fall in this mediating category are the Fade wave, the hip-hop haircuts, the weaves (extensions). This is a category that is both inside and outside at once. It is a highly tabooed status, because one is never quite sure of his status in either category. The return of the Baby Afro is a good sign that blacks are not about to totally mirror white hairstyles.

The New Hip-Hop Style

My next stop is Charles Southern's second barbershop, Off Base II. There I meet Leon Billups, master of the hip-hop haircut. Mr. Billups started out in AJ Artistic Fingers in Oakland but moved down to San Diego several years ago.

Until recently, Billups explains to me, people looked down on straightened hair. But he is not ashamed of the fact that in his shop they straighten hair. "Chemical work," he calls it, adding, "it's a trend." But, he observed, a lot of styles are indeed coming back, even the Afro, which has made its return as the modified "Baby Afro."

But off base II's main specialty is the Fade. Billups describes their Fade as a "close cut in the temple area that gradually gets longer and longer as it comes up...from nothin' to somethin'."

Billups's principal patrons are the military. Because military men can't wear big Afros, they come for the small ones. "It's getting back to that," Billups says. Because military men are required to wear their hair short around the ears, Billups came up with an ingenious solution for men who want to pass hair inspection and sport a style more glamorous than the boot camp close-cut. He came up with the Fade-Wave.

This is a combination of Fade and Wave — hair cut close around the edges so that during inspection the soldier can past muster. But at night, when he is going tout to socialize, he can take his cap off and expose the top of his head, which is covered with wavy curls! The Fade-Wave is styled with "some" chemicals. "You can wear a military cap," Billups explains, "and still be sharp." When the soldier comes out at night, he can pull off the cap and act "civilian."

A lot of celebrities and boxers — Gilbert Batiste and Terry Norse, for example — come to the Off Base II to get in style.

The Afro-Centric Hairstyle

The Afro-Centric is located at 732 Broadway in the middle of downtown San Diego. Its owner, Derek Jordan, like Leon Billups, is from the Bay Area.

The downtown location is an advantage, Jordan believes, because it is accessible to customers who want black haircuts but are afraid to go into the Southeast area. Seated in the Afro-Centric Barbershop, loud rap music and police sirens make conversation impossible. Over the noise, I ask Derek what happened to the old barbershop atmosphere of joking and storytelling and gossip.

"Most young people don't want to hear about that anymore," he says. "They just want to hear that hip-hop music and go out to parties." A glance 'round the crowded mirror-walled room at the young blacks and few whites staring abstractly off into space confirms his observation.

The Associated Barber College

Not far from the Afro-Centric is the Associated Barber College, where many barbers in San Diego get their training. The Gentry family, Evelyn Gentry, Mr. Chapman, and other black barbers I talk to have attended this college.

I am greeted by a friendly Pat Frank. She is the only woman in the state of California, she tells me, who owns a barber college. Her father owned a barbershop for 46 years. She was a registered nurse when she took over the business.

"We have Hispanics, Latinos, African-Americans, whites, Turks who come here to learn the profession," she tells me. "What is it that they all learn?"

"Shaving, patterns of various haircuts, cutting, facials, scalp manipulation, shampoos. Everybody gets the exact same curriculum."

"What about hip-hop haircuts? Can one learn that here?"

"Of course. We teach the basic haircut. They just put another name on it. Just give us the basic patterns and we can cut it."

"What is the popular haircut now?"

"Fade cuts."

"What was the popular haircut when you were at your peak?" I ask the school's former owner, Jackson Cole, who just happened to be there. Cole has retired but has dropped by to visit.

"Quo Vadis," he says, "that was back in the '50s. In fact, there is a young man over there getting one now."

"What made the Quo Vadis popular? The Navy?"

"Oh, no," he laugh, "just the fact that young boys didn't want to comb their hair out. For the same reason the Kojak was popular. But we have everything from people who want dreadlocks to some who want a bald head."

"Do you use chemicals?"

"Insurance companies won't insure barbershops that use chemicals because of the lye in them," Pat tells me.

"What else do you teach?"

"We teach the barber how to deal with difficult customers. Somebody might say, 'Give me a good haircut!' But what does he mean by that? He may not know what he wants. So we teach them how to deal with that, how to be diplomatic."

A child is screaming as his mother tries to soothe him. I notice many women with children waiting to be served. Why is the barber college so crowded? The price of a haircut is only $2.50.

The Future: Dr. Willie Morrow and Dr. JoAnne Cornwell: the Sisterlocks rise again

Dr. Willie Morrow is the most famous writer, inventor, and educator in barbering in San Diego, if not the whole country. I find him in his factory, located on Market Street, where he talks to me about the black hair culture and industry.

Morrow tells me that he was born in the South and that when he was a boy he plowed with a mule. He now owns a multimillion-dollar business dedicated to research in black hair. During the '60s he engineered the first Afro pick. He wrote four books, some of which are used by black barbers and hairstylists: The Art of Barbering: African-American Hair, The Principles of Cutting and Styling Negro Hair (1965), Curly Hair (1973), How I Created a Billion Dollar Industry (1984), and 400 Years Without a Comb (1990).

When I tell him that Pat Frank says she treated black hair just as she would any other hair, Morrow is outraged. "That's just the point," he says. "Black hair is not like white hair. It is chemically completely different."

Morrow adds, "There is a serious conspiracy to take the hair culture business away from black people." He shows me a trade book, Beauty Times, written in Korean. Scattered throughout the book are photographs of blacks modeling hairstyles.

"Koreans have peeped at our hold card," he says, as he flips through the book. "See these supplies? They are produced, controlled, and distributed by Koreans. They control all of the [black hair] merchandise in this country. Surprised?"

Yes, I am. "But who reads this magazine? It's all in Korean."

"They pass this around among themselves." Blacks who buy beauty products do not realize that they are buying products that are made for them by Koreans, Morrow claims. "This is dangerous," he says, running his hand cross his own slick California Curls. "What the Koreans are saying to other Asians is, 'Get you a store and sell this to blacks.' The Koreans make the jars and the products for these stores, which are also owned by them."

I look at an item called Magic Weave, extensions that black women wear in their hair. Does he mean that Koreans made these extensions that Janet Jackson wore in Poetic Justice?

"Here is how they make their money. They have 550 stores. They want the trade. They only sell to merchants, that is, to themselves. They distribute it themselves."

A black woman comes into the room. She is JoAnne Cornwell, a professor at San Diego State, a hair culture entrepreneur, and president of the Sisterlocks Approach. She and Dr. Morrow are old friends.

"Can you help me with this?" she asks Morrow. She is looking for a comb that will specifically fit her hair. Dr. Morrow explains, 'black hair is different from white hair. You need a comb that will treat the hair differently." He tells me the mistake that the barber college made is in assuming that all hair is alike. That has been the biggest error in caring for and treating black hair.

Dr. Morrow goes on to say that he has found a way to deal with kinky hair without subjecting the hair to a lye treatment. He and hair professionals like Dr. Cornwell are developing methods of giving blacks soft, curly hair without the nappy texture.

We have liberated black hair from the "nappy" and "kinky" condition, but hair professionals will continue to use the "hair problem" as a way to get rich. It is true that much of the old folklore is lost because in the new hip-hop barbershops, young people only want to listen to hip-hop music. Still, there are in San Diego many family-style barbershops where the old folk culture still flourishes. Women are cutting more hair and running shops themselves. "Most men want a man to cut their hair," Lady E. told me, "but sometimes they prefer a woman."

  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Sign in to comment

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader